After four years of political, economic and social crisis, citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are preparing to vote in new general elections on Sunday, hoping that new governments will finally bring the country out of its misery.
But, many fear that old ideologies and irresponsible policies will maintain the status quo, or make the situation even worse.
These fears, shared by locals and international experts alike, have been reinforced in the month-long campaign period, which was to end on Friday.
As always, radical nationalist rhetoric, heated speeches and verbal duels in the politically controlled media dominated the campaign.
Memorable highlights included a video clip of a drunken minister giving speeches from a restaurant table, an attack by one candidate on an opposing party’s stand using an axe and numerous cases of tearing down or burning party billboards,
It also included the illegal construction of a makeshift cross on the hill overlooking Sarajevo, erected at the place from which Bosnian Serb forces shelled and sniped at the city during the 1992-5 siege.
The campaign turned deadly on the final Monday when a 17-year old was stabbed to death following a rally in the northwestern town of Velika Kladusa.
This tragedy came as no surprise given the atmosphere of heightened ethnic and political tension, in which the main parties have focused on the same nationalist obsessions that pushed the country into war in 1992.
As in the 1991 election, the 2014 campaign saw hard-line Bosnian Serb politicians parading a separatist agenda, some Bosnian Croats still pushing for a separate entity, and Bosniaks arguing for a more centralised state.
“I don’t dare to read politicians’ interviews and watch their televised debates any more. It looks just like the war in Bosnia never ended … or that another one is about to start,” said Eldar, a cab driver in Sarajevo who fought in the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1992-5 war.
The dire performance of the politicians and their insistence on nationalist agendas has persuaded some foreign officials and organizations to engage more closely in the election than they might have chosen to do.
The US embassy and the US Agency for International Development, USAID, issued open, sharp criticisms through blogs, press statements as well as the TV jingle, “Vote or face the consequences.” Their criticisms drew an atypically robust response from some politicians, who accused foreigners of interfering in favor of some parties .
“Our goal in the weeks prior to the elections has been to engage with citizens directly to encourage them to participate in the political discussion, maintain focus on critical issues that affect their lives, and cast their ballots,” said US embassy’s press office in a statement for the Balkan Insight.
“We reiterate that the US does not support or promote any individual candidates or parties in these elections. Leadership of BiH is a matter for the people to decide,” the statement added.
Meanwhile, the election campaigns continued to feature the usual unrealistic pledges that are always forgotten and abandoned once the election is over.
The government of the Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska announced on Thursday, three days before the elections to increase pensions in that entity by two percents – effective immediately – while local and international economic experts claimed the RS lacked money to cover pensions even at the current level.
One leading candidate was mocked for pledging to create 100,000 jobs in the next decade. His chief rival was ridiculed for claiming to be “the greatest builder since Gazi Husrefbeg”, the 16th century Turkish governor who built hospitals, libraries, schools and several mosques.
The campaign also included the usual well-timed grand openings of major infrastructure projects.
On Tuesday, five days before polling day, one party leader opened a new 20km stretch of motorway. On the same day another party leader officially opened work on the construction of a bridge on the future road between Banja Luka and Prnjavor. Another grand opening, for a pedestrian underpass at a road junction in Stup, in Sarajevo, was scheduled for Thursday.
These public events and grandiose statements drew criticism from the local branch of the Transparency International, the global non-governmental organization that monitors and battles corruption. In a statement, TI said parties were abusing public companies and public resources for election purposes.
The public events and empty promises fooled no one. After eight years of political deadlock, the economic and social base of the country has been devastated, and industry and agriculture wrecked, while unemployment and poverty levels are both on the rise.
The period since the last elections in October 2010 has been especially damaging, with all three ethnic/political blocs effectively falling apart as a result of personal quarrels and struggles over positions, power and money.
As boundaries blur between ruling and opposition parties, as well as between national and civic ideologies, public frustration and anger has grown across Bosnia’s administrative and ethnic divide.
The tensions exploded in a series of protests at the beginning of February 2014. This uprising was briefly hijacked by hooligans, which led to violence unseen since the end of the war and came close to triggering armed clashes in some areas.
Local politicians and international diplomats were initially shocked and scared by the violence, but then seemed to forget all about it as protests subsided.
Since then, local politicians have kept buying social peace through borrowing from international financial institutions and commercial banks - which has only delayed what seems to be Bosnia’s inevitable economic collapse.
The situation became even worse after a series of floods and landslides hit parts of the country from May onwards, destroying houses, businesses and infrastructure. The single biggest natural disaster in Bosnia’s history has temporarily displaced 90,000 people and caused damage estimated at 2 billion euro.
Yet, politicians did little to address this crisis. Four months after the floods struck, the victims and international aid officials complain that local leaders have still not drawn up action plans to coordinate foreign reconstruction projects.
And so Bosnia awaits Sunday’s elections and the upcoming winter with thousands of people still without roofs over their heads, with tens of thousands camping in ruined accommodation and with an army of 550,000 unemployed, which keeps on growing.
The country is also expecting a new rainy season with damaged or destroyed flood-prevention systems, raising fears of new floods in the worst affected areas.
Yet, despite this dramatic situation, and despite all the fears that Bosnia is on the brink of humanitarian disaster, of bankruptcy, or even breakup, most local politicians appear unfazed.
The upcoming elections promise a couple of close, uncertain races. One is the contest in Republika Srpska between the ruling coalition and the opposition bloc. Another is the contest for the Bosniak, Croat and Serb seats on Bosnia’s tripartite Presidency.
These contests could in theory bring about some changes. However, the population, as well as local and international experts, are skeptical. They suspect that a new political nomenclature will come with old ideas and attitudes and will fail to improve the situation.
Lacking any concrete ideological, political or economic platforms and strategies, most parties are open to all kinds of possible post-election alliances - and will be waiting the results to start doing the math and negotiating coalitions.
The politicians’ next focus is expected to be on reinforcing positions of power by removing old and appointing new, loyal personnel in key positions in numerous institutions, directorates and offices.
These processes usually consume a year or more, by which time Bosnia will be gearing up for the 2016 local elections, when the parties will again harden their positions and ignore bread-and-butter issues.
Such a situation offers little hope that the new governments will act to arrest Bosnia’s downward spiral and bring the country back on the path to EU membership and economic and social stability.
This also brings back the past and future engagement of the international community into focus.
“After the elections, I fear that we (the international community) will find ourselves again in the situation of either watching the further degradation of this country, or of engaging more closely in the reform process,” one senior Western official said.
After the failure of a year-long EU-facilitated negotiations process with local leaders aimed at reforming Bosnia’s constitution in line with the 2009 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in the Sejdic-Finci case, the EU last year announced a new approach.
This focuses more on economic and social issues. The EU worked on concretizing this “new approach” through technical and high-level meetings between EU, German, Austrian, French and Bosnian officials over the past few months.
In parallel with this, in July the EU presented a so-called “Compact for Growth” – a package of ready-to-go economic and social reforms that all experts agree are needed to overhaul the country’s weakened economic and social base.
Most of these reforms were in fact on the table in various forms over the past ten years - but no governments dared to touch them, since they were seen as too tough and unpopular.
Local and international experts view the new EU approach as promising. However, for it to work, the EU would have to fix some past mistakes, offer a larger and more concrete financial envelope, and commit to stronger engagement in the political sphere, which EU officials have stubbornly avoided doing in the past.
At the same time, while the US still publicly supports the EU’s leading role in dealing with Bosnia, US diplomats express private concern that technocratic approaches to economic and social reforms will not work in Bosnia’s self-serving political milieu.
A number of European officials say the Americans still believe that Bosnia’s numerous problems all derive from – and can only be fixed through – constitutional overhaul. According to these sources, some American circles have been working on a draft proposal for another attempt at constitutional reform, which could be put on the table after the elections.
EU countries are not delighted with this idea, having seen how local politicians misused negotiations on the Sejdic-Finci reform to abandon key administrative, economic and social reforms and focus on distributions of positions of power and money.
“It is clear to us that any new initiative for a constitutional reform will simply fail and will give local leaders a new motive to spend another four years doing nothing,” the European diplomat said.
The Europeans are discussing other options with the Americans for eventual, locally driven constitutional reforms, hoping that US diplomats will not move an initiative on their own.
“It seems that the US would like to pick up the constitutional question after the election, but the outlines of what that might mean in practice are murky,” says Kurt Bassuener, a senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, DPC think-tank.
“A ‘let’s do a deal approach’ doesn't fill me with hope, given the incentives in the system. The European tendency seems to be to aim lower for some tangible reforms, probably using the Compact for Growth as the baseline,” he added.
“However, this approach will run into the same problem - the political elites have not engaged on meaningful reform because they don't want to – it’s not in their interest,” he continued.
“Both approaches are hunting for deliverables in the shorter term, which makes bureaucratic sense, but seems the wrong starting point. The West should take advantage of all the new personnel on the scene - who are not invested in the failed policies to date - to devise a common new approach,” he concluded.
“It is clear that BiH needs reforms to address systemic problems that impede economic growth and good governance. The difficulties that every citizen faces continue to grow, and they will not improve on their own,” said the US embassy’s press office in its statement for the Balkan Insight.
“The nature of reforms is a matter for the citizens of this country and their elected leaders to decide, and that discussion must be approached in the spirit of collaboration and compromise. The US will continue to work closely with its EU partners to support the reform process,” it concluded.